Philosophical Progress (The Proper Description)

I had a conversation with my fellow grad students yesterday about philosophical progress. 

I put forward the unpopular claim that there is no such thing as philosophical progress. If anything like it exists, it does not entail a kind of “pushing forward” towards truth. Philosophical views come in and out of focus, some die and get resurrected, others are left on the wayside and abandoned. Nothing is laid to rest for good in philosophy. This is not progress in the sense we’re used to (the one that the sciences give us).

We then started speaking about descriptions. One of the grad students said, “surely there is a true description of a state of affairs, the right description. That seems to be what we’re aiming at.” Again, I’m weary of this claim. There are many different descriptions that can be given for the same event, there doesn’t seem to be any one that’s “better” than the other. That is, without a given use or context, it seems there is no objective “better” vlaue claim to be given. A description can be better or worse based on what kind of use you have in mind for the description. However, the bare use of “better” here without that context seems to be empty. By what criteria would we give to claim one description is objectively “better” than another? That a description is the proper one without a use? 

After pushing this forward (also unpopular), I was told that I think philosophy is empty. That if there is no proper description, there is not progress, then I think philosophy is meaningless. That philosophers are just chasing their tails. I told them this wasn’t the case. If I didn’t think philosophy was important in some way I wouldn’t be here, doing the work. As a matter of fact, I find that philosophy is only thing I care about as an academic discipline. 

There is a tension here. If there is no philosophical progress, if there is no proper description, then what is philosophy doing? This I know: it’s not going to explain anything. But that’s not helpful. I want to know what philosophy does do. That, I think, is mysterious. 

~ by Barky on October 27, 2012.

3 Responses to “Philosophical Progress (The Proper Description)”

  1. Dear Marcus, Do you know Pierre Hadot’s work at all? You may find his idea of philosophy as a series of ‘exercices spirituels’ a kind of homecoming, as I have . . . Every good thing, C.

  2. Is there philosophical progress? I think most of all it is what it is… whether you want to call it progress or not is not so important. Looking at philosophy of Wittgenstein for example, I wouldn’t say it’s empty or useless, but perhaps one wouldn’t want to call it progress either…

  3. C. : I’ll have to look it up! Thanks!

    Dandre: I think that’s the point. Look at that way you had to describe it! It’s hard to say exactly what is happening in philosophy as a discipline. I find it odd that so many others think philosopher could discover something. Science discovers stuff, philosophy does something else. Wittgenstein is my inspiration for these kinds of thoughts, so I’m glad you brought it up.

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